Tag Archives: improv

The Improv Rules For Better Relationships & a Better You

Screen shot 2014-02-18 at 9.33.42 PMI’ve had trouble with social anxiety since I was a kid. For holidays I would hide in the bathroom or some hidden corner of my room just to avoid having to talk to family members we didn’t see on a regular basis. Today I am the most grateful person for Dominoes online ordering service so I don’t have to actually call the store and converse with whoever answers the phone. Initiating conversations in general sounds pretty horrifying as far as I’m concerned (note my job as an internet blog editor).  So it is with a great flare of irony that I didn’t find my footing in Los Angeles until I started taking improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade.

For those not familiar, Upright Citizens Brigade specializes in long-form improv. So you and your scene partner start having a conversation and build a comedic scene around a “game” or a repeatable funny idea. And it’s all made up on the spot. So basically, you spend 3 hours a week for 8 weeks starting random conversations with people you just met. At the end of the course you then try to have one of those conversations (praying it’s funny) in front of every friend and family member you could convince to pay $5 to see it. It’s insanity – the definition of my worst social nightmare – and it’s the best thing I’ve ever gotten myself to do.

Don’t get me wrong, I have to pry myself off the back wall for every initiation I make. I want to throw up before 90% of shows I do and when I see the pros do it I am astounded at their ability to make it look so easy. What I’ve learned through my two years of classes and indie shows though has not only helped me develop as a performer (When I moved here I would rather be hit in the face with a shovel than be accused of being an actor, but now I have head shots. It’s definitely part of the dream) – but the rules of improv have helped me become a better person in life. Don’t believe me? Try a few of these basic principles and see the good it does for your own relationships.

1. Listen – This is the first and most important rule of creating any scene – but it should be the first rule of any interaction you have. Get out of your head and stop thinking of what you’re going to say next and actually take a second to hear the words someone else is saying. Watch their body language. Take notice of the intonation of their voice and make sure you understand what it is they are trying to tell you. For better or worse, everything said at the top of your scene if your foundation but it is only through listening that you can lay down bricks next to each other in a coherent fashion. Listen first, and you’ll be shocked how much easier it is to talk second.

2. “Yes and…” – Tina Fey has a similar list to this in her book Bossypants (which everyone should read) and she talks a lot about the “Yes and..” rule. This is actually the first thing you learn in improv. Your job as a performer is to agree. What does this mean? Don’t deny anything your scene partner says. You do not have to agree with it, but you’re not allowed to negate it or say that it isn’t true. It’s disrespectful and ruins the progress their contribution made. In real life terms, saying yes being means staying open to someone else’s ideas. It goes hand-in-hand with listening, really. The truth of the matter is that we’re all on this planet together and no one gets anything done alone. Honestly, it’s a lot more fun when you’re contributing together and a lot less stressful than trying to build an empire by yourself.

That brings us to “and..” This is the hardest part. You have to agree, and then add to the conversation. You have to participate. Otherwise you leave your scene partner doing all the heavy lifting and often times a scene will stall. It’s the same in life when you just plod through saying yes without actually getting involved. You become an inactive observer and before you know it you’ve watched so much go by without ever being part of it. So be open and jump in.

3. Be honest – When you’re building a scene it only works when everyone agrees that what you’ve built is real. If halfway through someone says “Ha, but I lied!” then it negates all the work up until that point. If you tell one lie then it’s impossible to be sure if anything that you’ve said has been the truth – on stage or off. An extension of this is don’t be coy. A lot of beginner improvisers will pretend to have a secret or delay saying their full idea because they think it will prolong the scene but really all it does is prolong the frustration. When you’re direct with what you’re thinking then it can be dealt with and built into the universe. When you’re dealing with real life relationships being direct may cause more confrontation initially, but the problems can be dealt with immediately and you learn only to make issues out of things that you really care about. When you purposefully try to be sneaky you waste scene time on stage, and you waste time in your relationships, for what? Something you’re going to have to deal with eventually, so just do it now so you can move on to better things.

4. Be a human – My favorite improv coach started our first class by saying the most popular critique he would give us would be “Be humans to each other.”  It sounds like common sense, right? I mean, how would we not be human to each other? What he meant was to combine all of the aforementioned rules and react to our partners like real people. We may be making things up but comedy comes from truth and you create a richer scene when you play it real. Being a human means you have to listen to what your scene partner says and be affected. If they insult you then you need to be honest and show that you’re insulted. If you’re not insulted then you better “yes and…” with the reason why. Sometimes in the real world we don’t take the time to be affected by the things around us. We’re moving too quickly in our own bubbles to absorb the events in our lives. When you take a second and process how something makes you feel and you react honestly to it you make progress. You learn. You grow. You’re more empathetic to others and you’ll find that it’s much less stress for you.

Improv hasn’t changed who I am, but it has given me several tools to be a better version of it. I will probably always choose the online option over calling it in, but at least I know I can get off the wall if I want to. I know that not all the pressure is on me, and if I can listen and react honestly then there’s the potential to create something out of nothing. Isn’t that the magic we’re all looking for?

How do you try to be a better human? Share in the comments below! 

Find Your Success by Finding Your Tribe

Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.

– Oprah Winfrey

springfriendshipsWhen I first moved to California my aunt and uncle were kind enough to let me live in their guest room rent-free until I was able to find a job. The arrangement was not supposed to last more than three months. Instead, it lasted nine.

They lived 45 minutes north of Los Angeles, which was a lot more convenient than my parents’ house 3,000 miles away, but it still felt like a world away from where I wanted to be. Every day I spent the morning sending in job applications, trolling the internet for more places to apply to, nagging every contact I had to see if they had heard of any openings. There were a couple of interviews but they were weeks apart and it was becoming obvious that none of them were going to work out. I started applying for local retail part time jobs as well, just to get some cash coming in but with the unemployment market the way it was they knew better than to hire a recent college graduate who was trying everything they could to get their “dream job.”

Needless to say, it wasn’t long before the depression set in. My aunt and uncle were amazing and so generous during this time, but I still felt separated from all of my friends back home and I knew no one in the place I wanted to be. There were one or two people from college living in LA but if I was being honest, their success while I was struggling to figure out exactly what I wanted to do just made everything more frustrating. I felt so alone.

Then I made the most important decision that I’ve made since moving to the west coast. I decided to take an intro-level improv class at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater. At first I naively thought I could take one class, prove to be an improv messiah and be hired as Amy Poehler’s assistant before the whole thing was over, or at least get a hook up for a page job at NBC – not to mention it’d force me out of the house and into the city for three hours a week. Of course, I’m still waiting for my call from Amy but what I did find will be more instrumental in my success than any job interview or fancy contact will ever be. I found my tribe.

Suddenly I was surrounded by people exactly like me. They were all at varying points on the road to being able to pay rent by entertaining people, but we were all traveling together. They were people who cared about being funny. About performing. About writing. And as we learned to “Yes, and…” and listen together, we began to care about each other. Improv is entirely about support, after all. It’d still be another two months before I found employment, but taking that class and making those friends gave me a whole new outlook on my journey in Los Angeles. I felt a renewed energy and motivation. I listened to their stories and soaked up their wisdom. I went to their shows and clapped the loudest. For the first time in almost a year since I uprooted my life to go after this ridiculous dream, I felt like I belonged here.

Last summer when comedian/writer Katie Dippold released her first written feature length movie The Heat, her old friend and fellow comedian Chris Gethard wrote an essay about it, and how Katie had been a fundamental part of finding his own tribe.

Now maybe you think you have a shot at being a creative person who pays their rent by being creative. Maybe you’re scared to go for it, like I once was. Maybe you have something you want to do and you don’t know if you can really do it. My suggestion, based on experience, is to find someone else who might be uncertain of themselves, and be brave enough to tell them what you see in them. Be brave enough to hear about the belief they have in you. Be the lighter fluid for someone else, and let them fan your flames too. Find your tribe.

Finding your tribe is not at all about finding the people who are the best connections to get you to the next level. No, those are contacts and you should keep them separate. Your tribe are the first people you call when you land the big job because they were the people you cried to all the times you didn’t. Your tribe are the people who tell you that you’re being an idiot and you need to focus when you blow off a writing a deadline. They are the people that pick you up and take you to the movies the morning after you’ve had your heart broken to give you something else to think about. Your tribe are the people that hold your hand when things are messy and they are the ones that clap the loudest when all of it becomes clear.

After that first class I started taking more and over the past year I’ve been steadily adding more and more people to the tribe. This advice isn’t just for creative people because it’s not just creative people that need support. Everyone participating in life needs a tribe. So do yourself a favor and look at the people you spend the majority of your time with. If any of them make you feel less than deserving of all the things you want, tell them to beat it. Make the conscious effort to surround yourself with people that not only support you, but have the strength and integrity to call you out when you’re being ridiculous. As Oprah said, you need the people who will ride the bus before they’ll ride the limo. These people are your magic potion, your cheat sheet, they’re the key thing you need to get you to where you want to go.

If you’re in need of finding the right people for your tribe, take a risk and put yourself out there. You can follow my footsteps and take a class. Or you could join a book club. Peruse MeetUps.com for people that follow your interests. Put yourself in a room with people you don’t know but who have a common interest or goal and see what happens. And don’t disqualify the internet as a great place for meeting those people. Message boards and social media sites are great ways to meet people you otherwise wouldn’t have who share your passions and can be a great resource as you start to figure yourself  out. 

Find your tribe. Find your happiness. Find you.

Hilarious Acting Moment From the Late Jonathan Winters

zefNrgqIf you’re an improv-lover, an actor, or watched any comedy television from 1960 onwards, then you know the name Jonathan Winters. A pioneer in the comedy world, Winters passed away last night at the age of 87. He was responsible for almost single-handedly making improv a known and beloved style of comedy around the country, with shows like Whose Line Is It Anyway? cropping up in his wake. You may also remember Winters from films like It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and the television show Mork & Mindy. Or perhaps you have your own favorite Winters movie or moment?

Here is Jonathan Winters at his finest, dressed up as a farmer and fictional past classmate of longtime Tonight Show host, Johnny Carson. Permission to laugh at loud, wherever you are:

We will miss you, Jonathan Winters! Rest in peace.

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